This month marks the tenth anniversary of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations. In the decade since The Fellowship of the Rings‘ release, Jackson has established himself as one of the top tier directors working in escapist film today — sitting on a shelf slightly below Lucas, Spielberg and Cameron. While his follow-up films to the Lord of the Rings trilogy haven’t exactly lit the world of film on fire, it’ll take at least a few more Lovely Bones to trample the goodwill from geeks that Jackson has built up with his Middle-Earth fantasy films.
With Jackson currently filming an adaptation of The Hobbit, many genre fans are left wondering when we’re going to finally see the filmmaker return to the world of horror. Sam Raimi, another horror director that left the genre for many years for the world of big-budget Hollywood films, showed fans that he still had what it took to scare with Drag Me To Hell. Is it too much to ask for a similar smaller-scale horror film from Peter Jackson?
From his earliest feature-length film Bad Taste, Jackson showed a proclivity towards gross-out gore. It was in his early work that Jackson displayed a knack for combining slapstick humor with enough fake blood and puss to make even the most iron-stomached of horror fans feel a little nauseous. Jackson’s horror films weren’t merely gross, though. They showed a creativity born from love and respect for the genre. Jackson pushed through obvious budgetary and technical restraints to show audiences something new and exciting and to give his horror films an epic feel that would one day not be out of place in one of his Lord of the Rings movies. Jackson’s horror movies may have had small budgets but, thanks to their scale and gore-to-minute ratio, they felt larger in scope and size than they really were.
Perhaps one of the most seminal of his horror films, Dead Alive was recently released on Blu-ray from Lionsgate. Originally released in 1992, Dead Alive (or Braindead as it was known in its international release) is a tribute to the zombie genre birthed by the films of George A. Romero. Instead of heavy-handed political and social allegories, though, Jackson concentrated on making a zombie movie that was as fun as humanely possible. He mixed the innovative visual look of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn — full of flashy camera moves and an abundance of gore — with the sensibilities of a live-action Looney Toons short film.
Dead Alive ignored the constraints of reality in favor of a world where zombies could have sex and birth zombie babies and undead intestine could continue to fight once separated from the rest of its body. Dead Alive didn’t let logic get in the way of a joke and the end result is a movie that’s perhaps more funny than scary but is, all the same, a horror classic.
Timothy Balme stars as Lionel Cosgrove, a nebbish mamma’s boy who finds himself at the epicenter of an undead outbreak when his mother is bit by a Sumatran Rat-Monkey.
I’d like to take a break from talking about Dead Alive to briefly discuss the Sumatan Rat-Monkey, a very important part of Jackson’s film lexicon. The monster comes from the result of plague rats raping the tree monkeys of Skull Island. The use of this island, an obvious reference to the original King Kong, would foreshadow Jackson’s eventual job directing the 2005 big-budgeted remake. The Sumatran Rat-Monkey would be referenced several more times throughout Jackson’s career — most recently in a throwaway line in The Adventures of Tintin, the upcoming Steven Spielberg animated movie that Jackson produced.
Lionel’s mother, post rat-monkey bite, is a dog-eating, puss-dripping monster in a floral dress. Her son’s desperate attempts to keep his undead mother under wraps and hidden from the public eye quickly leads, as such things will, to a full-scale zombie outbreak featuring one scene in which fake blood is pumped at five gallons a second.
Dead Alive may not be the slickest zombie movie around but it most certainly is the wettest. Every inch of the film seems soaked in red and the movie, despite its amateurish acting and, at times, hodgepodge effects, has a genuine personality to its tone. The movie feels like the equivalent of a college roommate — a bit slovenly in its style, perhaps, but always comforting and willing to get high with you.
The Blu-ray, by the way, looks and sounds fantastic despite the film’s meager origins. A few special extras, or any at all, would have been nice, though.
It’s now been 15 years since Jackson’s last genuine dabbling in the horror genre. The Frighteners, the horror-comedy starring Michael J. Fox as Frank Bannister, a conman who can commune with the dead, may have originally been a box office bomb upon its release but the film is certainly worth a rewatch if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it.
Originally planned as a theatrical spin-off from HBO’s Tales from the Crypt series, producer Robert Zemeckis saw enough in Jackson’s vision to give the film its own identity free from the television show. The end result is a tonally tumultuous horror film that dodges from being a light-hearted, often campy comedy to exploring some pretty dark subject matter.
After his wife died in a mysterious car crash, Frank found himself with the ability to see and talk to dead people. Instead of permanently freaking out, Frank uses this ability to team up with a trio of friendly ghosts to haunt houses and then promptly exorcise them. This racket has led to an emotionally and financially empty life and it takes a run-in with an evil spirit played by Jake Busey to remind Frank what it really means to be alive.
The Frighteners isn’t quite the same level of whacked out weirdness as Jackson’s earlier horror films nor is it the dreadfully somber affair that Jackson’s dramatic films have tended to be. The picture is a weird hybrid of tongue-in-cheek camp, special effects wizardry and often extremely violent and dark horror. There are traces of vintage Jackson peaking out from the corners of The Frighteners — especially in one murder scene that rivals Dead Alive‘s legendary zombie baby-induced cranium rip when it comes to disgusting head trauma.
The most interesting, and heartbreaking, aspect of The Frighteners is the glimpse at the theatrical career that could have awaited an adult Michael J. Fox if it wasn’t for his illness. No longer carefree Joe Cool from the Back to the Future films, adult Fox was a down-on-his-luck, yet still insanely likable hero. He had the downtrodden nature of modern Matthew Broderick combined with a plucky determination entirely reminiscent of vintage teen Fox. He was a hero you wanted to root for and could still relate to. The Frighteners is Michal J. Fox’s last starring role in a live-action theatrical movie. Watching the film today is a sad reminder of a talent cut down before his prime. It’s also a good excuse as any to remind people that Michael J. Fox isn’t dead yet and he is still continuing to do great work in his limited television appearances.
Peter Jackson has carved a nice niche for himself when it comes to fantasy film directing. With the success of Lord of the Rings, he has finally joined the ranks of his filmmaking heroes in combining emotionally rich storytelling with innovative special effects and filmmaking technology. That said, it sure would be nice to see what Jackson could do with the last fifteen years’ worth of experience and wisdom and a good horror movie script.
While we may never again see the seemingly artistically reckless director that made films such as Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive, it’s nice to know that deep, buried within that furry little man directing movies about hobbits, likes a gleefully sick chap who enjoys dumping fake blood on actors. Let’s hope that horror movie genius comes out to play again someday soon.
Tags: Back to the Future, Drag Me To Hell, George A. Romero, King Kong, Matthew Broderick, Michael J. Fox, Peter Jackson, Robert Zemeckis, Sam Raimi, Tales from the Crypt, The Adventures Of Tintin, The Lord of the Rings, the lovely bones